January 15, 2021
Tape recorders, ordinary cameras, and movie cameras are already extensively owned by wage-earners. The question is why these means of production do not turn up at factories, in schools, in the offices of the bureaucracy, in short, everywhere there is social conflict.
—Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “Constituents of a Theory of the Media” New Left Review (1970)
HOW QUAINT that question seems today.
The assault on the Capitol on the afternoon of January 6—the first hostile occupation of the building since Washington was sacked and set ablaze by British soldiers in 1814—is one of the most shocking attacks on a civic institution in United States history. It is also among the most self-documented. It is in that context which one must consider the thirty-nine-minute digital video titled by its maker John Sullivan, aka Jayden X, Shooting and Storming of the US Capitol in Washington DC.
A continuous take, intermittently annotated by its maker—a political cipher at times self-identified with (but also repudiated by) Black Lives Matter and the founder (and sole member?) of a Utah-based group called “Insurgence USA”—Shooting and Storming is one chunk of time and one African American man’s experience as both observer and participant. Swept up in a mob of Trump supporters, he may be heard telling police that he’s exercising “freedom of the press” and cautioning them (as well as the rioters) to “stay safe,” but mainly digging (or, per his account, pretending to dig) the scene.
X wanders through the Great Rotunda and Statuary Hall, joining in as, iPhones aloft, the mob pounds on a door leading to the House Chamber. “I wish I still had the crowbar,” someone says. Abruptly, the insurrectionists make for an alternate means of entry which, guarded by three cops, opens on the Speaker’s Lobby. X works his way to the front of the crowd by claiming to have a knife to jimmy the barricaded door.
He does not but others attempt to smash their way in. The cops step aside and, as a woman wrapped in a Trump flag with an American flag backpack, hopping about on the periphery, is hoisted up, a shot is fired from behind the barricade. Hit in the neck, she bleeds to death on the marble floor. X, who spotted the gun moments before, is in an agitated state of shock: “I can’t believe I saw somebody die!”
If Shooting and Storming were scripted agitprop, it couldn’t have had a better ending. The casualty is Ashli Babbitt—martyred Horst Wessel of Trump’s MAGA-hatzis. Her death puts a punctuation mark on X’s movie. Best to split. Shooting and Storming ends with the arrival of a SWAT team as the enraged, thwarted mob begins to disperse, possibly to watch itself on the conspiracy site Infowars.com.
A documentation of violent death, Shooting and Storming is, like the Zapruder film and the footage in Albert and David Maysles’s Gimme Shelter (1970), cinema as forensic evidence. Beyond that, it suggests a solo version of oppositional documentary films—although where the activist docs produced by the Film and Photo League, the Newsreel group, and, more recently, the Syrian collective Abounaddara, are designed to inspire thought, Shooting and Storming is purely Dionysian. The attitude toward criminal behavior seems essentially nihilist. What’s most troubling is the resemblance to the participatory cell phone reportage of the Iranian Green movement and the Arab Spring, blurring the line between a popular uprising and a Brownshirt putsch.
Like those movies, Shooting and Storming embodies the desire to seize control of history. There is no denying the revolutionary euphoria, and acephalous hooliganism, it documents. “I can’t believe this is reality—we accomplished this shit!” someone, perhaps X, cries as the mob storms past ineffectual cops and breaches flimsy barriers, “We’re all part of this fucking history.”
When the rioters burst into the Capitol, one yells “on with the show.” At this point, the mob crashes into another dimension. “Somebody have music?” someone asks. “Like, a boombox or something. Revolutionary music and shit?” A soundtrack is required. The costumed insurrectionists are living a movie. In their minds, it might be Eisenstein’s October (1927), which climaxes with the people of Petrograd storming the Winter Palace. (In fact, Shooting and Storming is October’s dialectical opposite—an instance of spontaneous gonzo reportage in a continuously unfolding present rather than a self-conscious historical reenactment constructed through analytical montage.) A more detached viewer could be reminded of a later Russian movie, also a single take, namely Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), a historical pageant which unfurls within that same vast building.
Costumed as caped superheroes, Game of Thrones barbarians, or GI Joe dolls, the exultant revelers cavort amid faux Roman statues and epic historical canvases. A howling mob has captured the sacred space of American antiquity. History is over. Everything is now! “Damn! Damn! This is 2021 y’all,” X cries. “This is insanity! Holy shit—what is this?” Then, answering his own question, he asks a colleague who is evidently documenting him, “Is this not going to be the best film you ever made in your life?”
Properly annotated, Shooting and Storming could furnish the material for a documentary on the events of January 6, or a film like Peter Snowdon’s Arab Spring compilation The Uprising (2013) or a virtual museum experience. It has already provided the FBI with considerable evidence. As for X, he was charged yesterday with “violent entry and disorderly conduct” and other counts related to his involvement in the insurrection. What of the vacuous demiurge who conjured this occult antiauthoritarian celebration of authority into existence?
Having fired up his fans in an early rally, the Leader retreated to the White House and, according to The Washington Post, “watched the attack play out on television.”
Like Frankenstein’s monster, the rabble had taken charge of the show.
J. Hoberman was a Village Voice film critic for thirty years and has been contributing to Artforum for even longer. He has completed a monograph on the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup.
Update [January 18]: This article has been amended to more accurately reflect John Sullivan's relationship with Black Lives Matter.